Study, for most of us, conjures up images of exams, papers, and degrees. And it hardly seems to have any usefulness past graduation. However, this is not how the Christian monastic tradition views it. Study, in its Latin and Greek origins meant something zealous, keen, and intense. Our own seminary, in the Dominican Order, is called a “studium.” Fr. Albert and I both lived in such a studium for six years. This is a place for the unremitting and ardent pursuit of knowledge. And in the case of a seminary (where God is studied), this is knowledge of the highest and most important things.
Aside from theology, what are the sorts of things we can study? And what should we avoid in study? In this monastic conference, I’ll mention two important subjects to study, and one bad habit to avoid. The first subject to study is God himself. The second is the subject matter of your profession in life. And the bad habit to avoid is curiosity. I’ll explain why curiosity is considered a bad habit in last part. The Catholic monastic tradition uses a different definition of curiosity than the typical one.
The first and most important reality to study is God himself, as there can be no subject more important than him. A mug of knowledge of God is worth more than a swimming pool of knowledge of anything else. Since he’s our origin and our goal, knowing about him is supremely worthwhile. As Christians know, God is personal. He both knows and is known. And the primary way we ‘study’ (come to know) a personal God is by talking to him. We become acquainted in prayer. An important secondary way to come to know him, is to study what the greatest Christian thinkers have said about him. These thinkers fix our minds on sacred truth. And they help us avoid fashionable errors in our study. Their writings include the Bible (most of which was written by inspired authors before the birth of Christ), the writings of the Church Fathers, the Desert Fathers, other saints, Popes, and Church Councils, among other things. These books are true treasures. As the desert monk Epiphanius said, “The possession of Christian books is a necessity for those who have the means, for the very sight of the books itself renders us more averse to sin and rather impels us to aspire to righteousness.” I can see many such books on my shelves around me as I write. And they do remind me to study God first. Since God is the only reality capable of making us perfectly happy and fulfilled (all material things being limited), we devote our attention to him first.
Second, we study according to our professional obligations. God is most important, but not most important in that he crushes everything else. Knowledge of politics, for example, is a good thing in itself. Such knowledge can contribute to justice and peace. Students are here at Brown because they are ready to devote themselves to some such field in preparation for a profession. And this profession is one of the most important ways Christians will contribute to the common good of society. If a student intends to be a biologist, she ought to study biology assiduously. Become excellent. Not simply to be the top student in the class, and thereby to acquire the most money or fame, but rather to enjoy mastery of a complex subject. Knowledge is good for its own sake. And we acquire it primarily to delight in knowing the truth. When we pursue our professions in life, we take that truth we enjoy, and we use our knowledge of it to make the world better. By curing cancer or making prudent judicial decisions for example. In this way, our lives will be more complex than that of the desert monk. He did not have to become mixed up in professional obligations. He was separated from the world, and we are immersed in it. Many difficulties were simply unavailable to him, whereas we must contend with them. But we can possess the ethos of monastic intensity, even if we cannot carry out all its exact practices: weaving baskets, eating one meal per day, killing scorpions that come into our cave, etc.
In these joyful (and arduous) pursuits, there are pitfalls to avoid. Curiosity is one of the most common and the most dangerous. Curiosity in the good sense means we desire to learn more about a subject. But the curiosity criticized here is something different. It occurs when we dissipate and scatter our energy over many useless objects. When we start scrolling through Instagram and then wonder what happened to the last two hours, this evil curiosity is at work. It is indulged when we enjoy listening to bad or scandalous news about other people and their lives. This isn’t the healthy curiosity about a telescope that makes a kid want to study outer space and become a physicist. This is the excessive desire to know all sorts of unrelated, scattered, and shallow subjects. We usually call this getting distracted or wasting time. And it’s more potent than ever with constant access to the internet and social media. This pernicious curiosity is the enemy of study. Because study is about focusing intensely and energetically on a subject and setting aside everything else. But in curiosity, the ‘everything else’ sabotages true work.
So, study hard. But try to avoid studying in a servile or harried way. Pursue it, rather, in a calm, single-hearted way that the desert monks would have recognized. You will be full of zeal and intensity, but a sustainable sort of zeal and intensity that will allow you to reach your goals.